How new connectivity technologies are lowering the barriers to Industry 4.0

The networking architecture of today’s factories is continuously evolving, unlocking better efficiency, safety and sustainability

30 Aug 2023

In the past few decades, networked intelligence has spread throughout our cities, homes and offices, enhancing everything from thermostats to traffic lights. This evolution has spread to the factory floor as manufacturers consider how to improve production through advancements in connectivity and digitization, or Industry 4.0.

“Most people have experienced automation in their homes through connecting edge nodes or terminals to the internet,” said Ahmed Salem, vice president and general manager for high-speed data (HSD). “Similarly, Industry 4.0 involves connecting this innovation in information technology with operational technologies to allow manufacturing systems to become smarter and more autonomous.”

Where Industry 3.0 was defined by the kind of caged robots that have traditionally been employed in heavy industry and tend to perform only a limited number of repeatable tasks, Industry 4.0 involves robots that are smart enough to work safely and autonomously alongside humans in assembling anything from cars and aircraft wings to smartphones and laptops.

Solving the trade-off between speed and reliability

The networking architecture of modern factories is trending toward improvements in efficiency, safety and sustainability through the continued development of industry standards and protocols such as Time-Sensitive Networking (TSN), EtherCAT and Profinet.

“In your home, a synchronization issue or data loss is just frustrating,” Ahmed said. “But in industrial automation, reliability and dependable communication are essential, because the consequences of data loss can range from costly to catastrophic.”

Even something as simple as a few milliseconds of unexpected delay in the delivery of a control signal could cause a compressed natural gas machine to move out of sync, causing permanent damage. In a worst-case scenario, a dropped connection might lead to situations such as a robot arm running dangerously out of control.

For these reasons, factories have traditionally relied upon tried-and-tested communications technologies with deterministic communication, guaranteeing the delivery of all control signals within a set time window. The downside most of these technologies presents, however, is their slow speed, which prevents the kind of fast and high-volume information flow needed to benefit from sensor-rich, intelligently controlled systems.

In contrast, Ethernet has long provided the kind of bandwidth required for advanced automation, with maximum speeds in the order of tens, hundreds or even a thousand megabits. EtherCAT and Profinet are examples of industrial Ethernet protocols designed specifically to address the challenges of industrial environments. The percentage of new industrial communication installations using industrial Ethernet has increased from 38% in 20161 to 68% as of this year2.

Additionally, the development of TSN standards make Ethernet a common choice as part of a control network through features such as a highly accurate distributed clock and the automatic prioritization of time-sensitive control messages in order to guarantee delivery within a specified time window.

Our portfolio breadth includes these connectivity solutions and more, whether wired or wireless, and are proven and tested to meet the highest industrial, automotive and regulatory standards.

Working with legacy infrastructures

While newer protocols and TSN may have made Ethernet fit for use in industrial control settings, installation costs have posed a remaining hurdle to their adoption.

Traditionally, Ethernet has been designed around multiple twisted-pair cables, with a maximum length of up to 100 meters. This means that manufacturers looking to adopt Ethernet would not only need to replace all of their cabling but would potentially have to change the entire layout of a factory built around older, single-pair technologies that permitted cable lengths of up to a few kilometers.

Most manufacturers cannot afford to halt their production lines for several weeks to replace expensive infrastructure, so the development of single-pair Ethernet – which can operate over a factory’s existing cables – has been key for adoption.

“Single pair is a version of Ethernet that has been designed to be adopted easily, without needing to fundamentally change how you build a manufacturing facility,” said Peter Jones, chairman of the Ethernet Alliance industry consortium. “Rather than expecting factories to meet the requirements of modern information technology, this is about coming to them and asking, ‘What do you need, and how can we help?’”

As a member of the Ethernet Alliance, TI is committed to aiding in development of industrial Ethernet’s many forms through our range of physical layer transceivers which support single-pair, multipair or fiber cabling. These products enable designers of automation systems to choose the high speeds and low latency of our 10/100Mbps and 10/100/1000Mbps DP838x industrial Ethernet transceivers or the 2-kilometer cable reach of our single-pair DP83TD510 transceiver. All transceivers are resilient against the high temperatures and electromagnetic noise of factory environments.

TI experts discuss the latest trends in connected factories, including predictive maintenance, time sensitive networking and how Ethernet continues to lead the way in transforming factories to meet the digitization and connectivity needs of Industry 4.0.

The streamlined future of manufacturing

Building the future of industry is a continuous process. As complex sensors become more affordable and artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities become more sophisticated, the demand for higher communications bandwidths are also increasing.

But with these challenges come opportunities to create more sustainable and efficient manufacturing processes.

Processors designed to support edge AI, such as our AM6xA processor portfolio, may remove the need to communicate with a centralized programmable logic controller altogether. Running machine vision algorithms locally could enable robots not only to work alongside humans but even to learn from them – for instance, by adapting to support an individual’s preferred order of performing a series of assembly tasks.

Over the longer term, Industry 4.0 will also involve the continuous monitoring of crucial systems – including sensors, actuators and the communications infrastructure connecting them – and the deployment of predictive analytics that can automatically anticipate when maintenance or repair work will be needed.

For newer, vision-based robotics systems, technology such as V3Link allow for low-latency, synchronized and scalable uncompressed video transport helpful in accident avoidance on the factory floor.

Improved coordination between humans and other robots requires advanced local processing and often wireless connectivity for a reliable indoor positioning system (see notable options for Wi-FiBluetooth Low Energy (BLE), and Sub-1Ghz / BLE).

“Shutting a factory down for maintenance is costly,” Ahmed said. “If you operate on a periodic schedule, then you have to do this regularly, whether it’s needed or not. In contrast, predictive maintenance means you can perform maintenance work only as and when it’s needed, avoiding unnecessary downtime and waste.”

These improvements in safety, efficiency and sustainability are more important than optional benefits for individual manufacturers. These will be essential steps for society as a whole as we seek to optimize our systems to better address the challenges of the 21st century, said Roland Sperlich, vice president and general manager for processors.

“Over the next 10 years, I think we will start to see the capabilities of sensor technology and edge AI in making a difference to power consumption – for instance, allowing us to dynamically turn off portions of the factory and then bringing them online quickly just as we need them,” he said. “With countries worldwide facing the need to adapt to increasing populations and an overstretched power grid, these innovations are going to be essential in delivering the kind of power savings that our customers want and that we all need.”

1See “Industrial network market shares 2016” 30 June 2016 (Control Drives and Automation)
2See “Industrial network market shares 2023” 05 May 2023 (HMS)

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